This week is scheduled for guest author spotlights. As vice-president of my local writers group, it’s my responsibility to seek out and arrange for speakers at our monthly meetings. Last year I read a notice about a presentation by Ann Arbor, Michigan author R. J. Fox, who’d written a memoir about his time in Ukraine. Since I was unable to attend the presentation, I invited R. J. to come and speak to the Grand Rapids group and he graciously accepted. R. J. teaches high school English and video production by day and writes screenplays and other literary works at night. He’s also a musician, which obviously elevates him to a totally awesome dude in my book. His book Love and Vodka is about a unique experience he had, and I’d hoped to be able to review it in time for today’s post – but life intervened. So I’ll share the book blurb and cover, and you’ll be able to see why this is high on my TBR list:
Bobby is over the moon after sharing a bike on the E.T. ride at Universal Studios with Katya. Join our “intrepid crusader” as he takes a leap of faith—traveling from comfortable “have-a-nice day … and have-a-warm-shower” suburban Detroit to Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, the former center of Cold War Soviet missile production. And unbeknownst to anyone but himself, he’s bringing an engagement ring! Experience life in a city that, until the mid-1980s, was closed to foreign visitors. R.J. Fox’s humorous, poignant, and memorable expedition is punctuated by a colorful cast of characters, adventures, and cultural mishaps and misunderstandings—from irate babushka women to hard-drinking uncles. Lesser mortals might have “phoned home” to be rescued. Armchair travelers and romantics—you will find yourself both schooled in hard knocks and heartened to have shared in the unforgettable experience of Love & Vodka! “Za vashe zdorovie!” “Love & Vodka” is a unique hybrid of travel memoir and love story that seamlessly blends outlandish humor, cultural insight and a steady stream of romance. Anyone who has traveled abroad or is considering traveling will certainly connect to this book. The same can be said for anyone who is experiencing new love or pining for a love of their own. “Love & Vodka” is a faithful reminder that there is someone out there for everyone. The world is large and rife with potential; one just needs to be willing to take a gamble and explore the possibilities that exist.
Doesn’t this sound like a book you want to read? I asked R. J. to share more about how he came to put that experience into writing. Again, he came through for me, so I’ll turn things over to him:
by R.J. Fox
The seeds of my writing future were undeniably sowed my 10th grade year, when I was assigned Ms. Gautreau for English. She would become more than just my teacher. She would become my lifelong mentor, guiding me through a dream that would culminate with the publication of my first book 23 years later. She is to whom that book is dedicated.
Ms. Gautreau taught me the meaning of following a dream with every ounce of your heart, mind, and soul. Her unbridled faith in my ability to succeed as a writer and filmmaker has kept me focused on my dream every step away and through every pitfall along my path. Despite a cavalcade of wholesale life changes I have encountered in my life, there has always been one constant: my dream…and the teacher who made it all possible.
To put it succinctly, Ms. Gautreau epitomized everything that a teacher should be. From an instructional standpoint, her lessons were always engaging and inspiring. However, far more important than any lesson she ever taught me was the fact that she helped me discover myself…and never stopped believing in me. By extension, I have never stopped believing in myself.
I can pinpoint the precise moment when my dream truly set sail. And it all comes down to a blue notebook. My holy grail. Like most English teachers, Ms. Gautreau required students to keep a journal. Several times a week, we would either have to respond to a specific prompt, or write wherever our pubescent muse took us. Our notebooks would be turned at the end of each quarter for feedback. I didn’t really know what to expect. In fact, I probably wasn’t even consciously thinking about it. But when I got my notebook back the first go around, the margins were filled with numerous brief, witty comments that outweighed the A+ I earned. Even though many of her comments were usually one or two words, this written “conversation” provided the spark of inspiration I so desperately needed. And it made me feel excited about writing in a way that I had never felt before.
Suddenly, life was full of possibility.
The true impetus and value of this notebook came to light after Ms. Gautreau’s father passed mid-way through the year. While attending a viewing at the funeral home, she introduced me to her family with great enthusiasm:
“So you’re the one with the journal!,” one of her family members proclaimed. I felt like a supertar! As it turned out, Ms. Gautreau had shared my notebook with her family in the hospital’s waiting room. It was a tremendous feeling and it was at that moment that I knew right then where my destiny lay.
Meanwhile on the homefront, my dream wasn’t exactly a greeted with open arms. The general consensus of my family toward my dream fell along the lines of: “It’s just a hobby,” (Bobby’s Hobby!) or “it’s only a pipe-dream.” It wasn’t so much that they didn’t support me. They just didn’t encourage me. Or is there any difference? But let me get one thing straight: I couldn’t ask more loving, generous parents and am extremely grateful for all they have done for me and all they continue to do. In some ways, their ambivalence toward my dream only added more fuel to the fire. And made me want to prove them wrong.
In the meantime, I just had to accept that “Bobby’s Hobby” was never going to be taken seriously. And with Ms. Gautreau’s guiding light, I was determined to prove their doubts wrong (and for over 20 years, they were right). Even though it took that long, I never once doubted that it was only a matter of time. Just how much time was a whole other matter. Sometimes, I wonder how long I would have stuck with it if I knew how long it would actually take. I certainly never would guessed it would take as long as it did. The longer it took, the harder it was going to be to turn back. You don’t put that much time into something, only to turn around with your tail between your legs. Fortunately, there were always enough clues (contests, optioned scripts, publication of short stories, etc.) along the way that I was at least on the right track. That I wasn’t time on something I had no business trying to get involved with. As long as I kept trying, there was always going to be a chance – or at least more of a chance than somebody who never tried at all. In essence, it came down to one basic principle: my dream was never a matter of if…it was always a matter of when. No matter how many setbacks. It was this mindset that allowed me to freely sacrifice so much of my free time and social life over the years. My dream always lay ahead like a lighthouse beacon surrounded by a dark, stormy sea. I just had to follow one simple rule: “Never give up.” It’s no surprise that my daughter learned to say “Daddy doesn’t give up” at the age of two. My dream is that my children will follow their own dreams just as daddy did, despite the frustration that is bound to result.
From the time my dream was hatched in Ms. Gautreau’s classroom, I have done everything in my power protect it at all costs. I have directed most of my prayers toward it. In fact, every major decision has revolved around my dream, including my decision to become a teacher. After toiling around in the media business after college, I couldn’t resist the allure of summers off and frequent breaks. I even spend my planning period writing, rather than grading or making copies because it is when I know I will be at my creative peak for the day.
Though I never once considered throwing in the towel, I would often wonder if I was doing enough. Or I would ask myself why was I still in Michigan, rather than Hollywood? A decision I still regret from time to time.
Before I got married, whenever I felt the urge to follow my heart to Hollywood, I convinced myself that I could still make my dream come true…from the comfort of my parents’ couch. And since I stayed home for college, my parents had grave concerns that I would spend weekend nights sitting at home on the couch writing. Not only were they were worried I would be single forever, they were worried I would be single and sitting on their couch forever.
Writing my life away…
It wasn’t that I didn’t have any friends (this wasn’t elementary school after all!). It was just that I was under the spell of my dream. Though I could certainly see understand their concern, it was ultimately through writing that I fell in love (which in turn, ultimately made my dream come true).
Flashforward to Y2K: I was on the cusp of receiving my English degree and working part time at Ford Motor Company in public relations.
However, with graduation looming, I was at a crossroads in my life. Since it was clear that Ford would not be offering me full time employment anytime soon, it was time to get serious about my future. So I decided to apply to the top graduate film programs and cast my fate to the wind. If, by some miracle, I got into one of the top programs, my decision would be made for me.
But life had other plans.
For my final spring break, I headed to Hollywood to take some film workshops, including Robert Mckee’s famous Story seminar. Little did I know my own personal Hollywood story was in the making.
The workshops I was attending were on opposing weekends, leaving me with plenty of time to be a tourist and ponder whether I should roll the dice and move out west, or remain in my comfort zone back in Michigan.
And then came March 7, 2000.
It was a rain-soaked day (I quickly learned that L.A. has a rainy season) and debated whether or not to head to Universal Studios, before ultimately deciding that a little rain wasn’t going to hurt me. So I took a $80 cab ride (which caught me totally off guard). Though I immediately regretted by decision, it would turn out to be the best $80 I ever spent.
After wandering the park for awhile in a melancholy daze, I spotted an attractive woman who also appeared to be by her lonesome on the Terminator ride. I lost sight of her and then later spotted her entering the E.T. ride. We were both eating peanut M & M’s. So I followed her in (making me a quasi-stalker). As fate would have it, we would ride together. We struck up a conversation and I learned she was an exchange student from Ukraine, living in Mississippi. Twenty minutes later, we were going our separate ways, with contact info in hand.
We became pen pals. At first, we started writing one another. First monthly. Then weekly. Then daily. E-mails soon became instant messages. Perhaps most importantly, she had read all of my scripts, showing more interest in my writing than anyone ever had in my life with the exception of one special teacher. Before we knew what hit us, we had fallen in love…through writing. Before long, our love blossomed until it was too big for even distance to contain us. Just over a year later, I headed to Ukraine with an engagement ring in my pocket.
Following the most amazing, magically surreal experience of my life, in which every moment felt like the coolest independent film ever made, I immediately got to work on a semi-autobiographical screenplay based on this experience, in the cold, dark shadow of 9/11.
A few years later, I optioned the script to a producer (for a whopping $1.00). My dream was finally coming true!
But then it didn’t.
Following extensive, excruciating re-writes, the script became more and more fictionalized, but I was willing to go along with whatever changes the producer suggested. But then the producer suggested that the location of the script get changed to Asia, on the account of potential Asian investors that he had waiting in the wings. Fortunately and unfortunately, the producer abandoned the project and the option expired. My script was an orphan again. And I was devastated. I had just experienced the biggest tease ever. Though I had fallen to my lowest point, I wasn’t willing to give up the ghost. Drawing upon the wisdom of the bestselling self-help book Who Moved My Cheese, I … moved my cheese and set screenwriting aside and try my hand at prose. At first, I felt like I was abandoning my dream. But then I realized, my end goal remained the same. I was just seeking an alternate route; I would have to enter Hollywood through the backdoor.
No longer bound by the constraints of screenplay structure, writing prose was an incredibly liberating experience. I was therefore able to go back to the original draft of my script and resurrect previously cut scenes. Furthermore, the script was essentially a skeleton outline, so all I had to do was add meat to the bones. The biggest challenge was to learn how to write prose that didn’t read like the sparse choppiness of a script. By the same token, the brevity of screenwriting also came in handy. It was just a matter of finding the proper balance. Over time, I got into the groove. And thus a book was born.
Sadly, around the time I was completing my book, my marriage had begun to unravel. And I would be in denial if I didn’t admit that my writing had a lot to do with it. If you marry a writer, know that writing will be your spouse’s mistress. Perhaps, the best advice I could give any writer is not to marry. It only ends up hurting people.
During the last couple of years of my marriage, there was a lot of pressure to stop writing. To abandon a dream that clearly wasn’t ever going to happen And at one point, I did. For the sake of my marriage. And I had never been more miserable in my life. I never felt more incomplete. I felt like an addict without a fix. When I’m writing, I never feel more alive. A literal high. In fact, I usually feel more awake and full of energy on the heels of a late night writing session than I do on a full night’s sleep. So once I lost that lifeline, I unraveled. Dear God, did I unravel.
Asking somebody to give up on something you put in so many years and sacrifice into is just about the most selfish thing you can ask someone to do for them. Quitting would mean everything was all for naught. It would have been one thing if I lost all faith in myself. But my faith never wavered. Yet, I wanted to do what I could to spare my marriage. Consequentially, it destroyed it.
Though broken, I wasn’t completely beaten. And then I started writing again, but did so secretly. I was a closeted writer. A painful, daily reminder that the person who once shared in my dream – who I fell in love because of her support of my dream – had forsaken me. So after trying to hold on as long as I could, I pulled the plug after eight years of marriage. And just like that, I was left with an unpublished book about a love story that no longer existed in reality.
The craziest thing about this was the fact that my divorce – as tragic and painful as it was – wasn’t my lowest point. It was the period when I had stopped writing.
When I first fell in love, I wondered if my Hollywood dream was only a ruse by fate to lead me to my soul mate on that fateful, rainy day at Universal Studios. I now realize that falling in love was actually part of fate’s grand plan that would lead to the book that would later make my dream finally come true. With no shortage of sacrifice, pain, and tears from two people, who once upon a time promised live happily ever after.
Five years later, my book was published. And as exhilarating and magical the experienced has been, I would be remiss to ignore the bittersweet melancholy that has accompanied me on this journey. On one hand, with every revision, I got to re-live my life’s most amazing experience over and over again. It is as close to time travel as the human mind can get. At the same time, these memories are soaked in regret when I think about how it all ended. And though I take comfort in the knowledge that this life-altering experience will live on forever in the pages of my book, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the regret of not sharing in this experience with her by my side. No matter how many book signings I have done and no matter how many copies I will ultimately sell, there will always be a deep, melancholy hole in my heart.
When the time came to write a dedication, the choice was simple: I knew I couldn’t dedicate it to my ex-wife. And I certainly wasn’t going to dedicate a book about my ex to my second wife. So it was only fitting I would dedicate it to Ms. Gautreau – the person who most made this publication possible.
Consequentially, one of the most joyous moments of my life was being able to introduce Ms. Gautreau to the packed house at my book’s launch party. That very moment was the culmination of every ounce of sweat, blood, and tears shed over the past 20 years, going all the way back to the moment that an awkward, directionless boy first entered that 10th grade classroom, only to exit with laser beam focus.
Her influence will always be felt through the deepest reaches of my soul every time I put pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard. No matter how much further my success carries me and no matter how many setbacks I must endure, every brick of my future will be built upon the foundation that Ms. Gautreau laid down for me.
I will conclude with a message she wrote in a Christmas card a few years ago:
“Continue to create. It’s significant energy, important to counterbalance the forces devoted to destruction on the planet. The creative process is necessary, meritorious and precious.”